D-Day - Salerno

 

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D-Day, Salerno - As I saw it... Author

As a follow up to Jack Elliott’s graphic description of the first days at Salerno, I would be remiss not to briefly describe my own trials and tribulations during those first terrifying hours on the beach. Being young, 18 to be exact, and not privy to the “big picture” plans for this little beach excursion, I was totally unprepared for the distinctly nasty attitude demonstrated by the Germans in response to our landing there. Perhaps the terrifying sight of my 115 pound hulk, lugging a carbine, a Thompson sub-machine gun, and the .45 automatic strapped to my waist unnerved them to the point where they were unable to bring their arms to bear for several minutes, and after that, it was too late. By then I was at least three feet deep into the beach and rapidly taking on the characteristics of a sand crab. Had not one of our officers, Mr. Zellerbach, I believe, screamed something about “getting the hell out of here”, I might well have wound up in the Guinness book of records as having dug a 50 foot hole in as many seconds. And all without benefit of an entrenching tool or helmet which were in position on my pack and head respectively. I can only surmise that I dug this fabulous hole with my little pinkies. I suppose that my abject terror was in reality a blessing, however, for when I leaped out of my “hasty defense position” to follow Mr. Zellerbach, I was shaking so violently that the best marksman in the German army could never have gotten a good bead on me. Compounding matters, I lost Mr. Zellerbach in the confusion as well as the rest of the “B” Company Headquarters gang with whom I went ashore. I did see Lt. McDavid, the Company Commander, and a friend, Bud Collins, for a brief moment, but then, like a will-o-the-wisp, they were gone. I like many others, spent the rest of the time trying to find out where the hell I was supposed to be and what I was supposed to be doing.

Two incidents did occur that will remain forever etched in my memory of those first hours on the beach; first, some type of shell hit a truck in front of me on the beach and some part of the debris from the wreckage, I believe it was a tire, inconsiderately knocked me flat on my keister. I of course thought that I had bought the farm or, at the least, taken out a lease on it, but on ascertaining that I was still intact with no visible missing parts, I proceeded (very rapidly) down the beach. Had I known that I was heading for Green Beach, where things were really getting uncomfortable, I would have probably just said the hell with it and went back into my “sand crab” routine, but not knowing that I was heading for the spot where others were trying to leave, I went on my merry way. It was then that I saw the fire. In the middle of the beach, in the din of the battle, sat a handful of Englishmen from the 5th British Beach Brick, making tea. They offered me a cup, or at least I think they did as the offer was made in a form of cockney English that I had never heard before (hell, I’d never heard any cockney English before), and I accepted, then I got the hell out of there. Who else but a bunch of crazy “Limeys” would take time out from the war to build a fire and cook a pot of tea, in the middle of an assault beach. The fact that one of them nonchalantly said something about Tiger Tanks breaking through the beach line didn’t seem to faze them a bit. It was teatime and as far as they were concerned the war would have to wait. Unbelievable!

Finally catching up with my Headquarters Group somewhere in the morning hours, we settled down to a more orderly routine and as Company “runner” my time was then spent running up and down the beach with instructions to the Platoons from the company Commander. One very vivid memory of that day was watching the ever-mounting number of dead British soldiers being placed in long rows in a hastily dozed out trench to the rear of the beach. Whether this was for burial or just a temporary resting place I don’t know as I never got back to that section of the beach but it was most assuredly a sober and unforgettable sight.

As with all situations such as this landing, some personal tragedy occurs. In my case it was a friend, RM/1c Eugene Macken, who wouldn’t have to worry about the next landing. He paid the ultimate price at Salerno when a DUKW in which he was riding hit a land mine on the beach. But again, as in the previous operations, casualties in the First Beach Battalion were amazingly few, lending even more credence to our unofficial title of the “Immortal” First Naval Beach Battalion. For fifty years now, it has been a never-ending source of amazement to me that an outfit of 450 men could make five combat assault landing on defended beaches, usually landing in the first three waves, and not suffer any more casualties than we did. Someone had to be looking out for us, and especially so since the British troops we landed with here at Salerno were being killed and wounded to the right and left, and among us. Many men looked to the sky those first few days, and it wasn’t to spot enemy aircraft, it was to offer thanks and say AMEN.

While writing this account of First Beach Battalion operations, I have often wished that time and space were available to elicit one or more personal remembrances from each member of the Battalion for inclusion herein. After listening to the myriad stories which are told and told again at each of our annual reunions, I am convinced that the inclusion of such personal remembrances would certainly spice up this otherwise rather droll manuscript. Many of them of course would have to be “cleaned up” prior to printing, even in this day and age of HBO and Show Time language. I have noticed though, that the stories told in the hospitality suite during our reunion activities take on a decidedly spicier flavor when the wives are absent versus the times when they are present at the tellings. I have noticed too, and I suppose it’s just human nature, that most of us remember the exciting times and the fun times as opposed to the more difficult and tragic times we encountered. I for one, have great difficulty, 50 years from the date of our landings, recalling specifics about the battles, the beachheads, and the tribulations we underwent, but I can recall most vividly the little excursions undertaken to procure beer, booze, or such other “niceties” as may have been available at any one given time.

And so the saga of the Salerno landings came to an end. Few of us will forget, however the screaming sound made by the landing gear fairings of a Stuka dive bomber in a strafing attack, or the whistle and thunder of the deadly 88mm cannon ringing the beachhead from the high ground around the bay, or the absolute bedlam of men and boats coming ashore in the dark of night to assault an enemy on an unknown beach. Boys grow into men rapidly in such an environment, and men grow into much older men. Hearth and home are never as sweet as they are when you’re thousands of miles away from them, tired, wet and hungry, and contending with an enemy firmly entrenched in real estate which you were led to believe would be yours for the taking. Such was Salerno, and so ended that portion of the Beach Battalion saga.

Before closing the book entirely on Salerno. I should say here that this landing was my last one in Europe. The day we were to embark for the subsequent Anzio landings, I experienced some agonizing abdominal pains and was hauled off in the back of a 6X6 truck to an Army Field Hospital somewhere between Salerno and Naples where they lost no time in whacking out my appendix. Initially I was quite upset about not making the Anzio landing with the battalion but as time dragged by and the battalion was bogged down on the Anzio beachhead for a period of almost four months of continual shelling and its contingent frustrations, I was more and more thankful that the old appendix decided to pop on the day of embarkation. This was especially so since at that time we were able to go to both Salerno and Naples on liberty. I could relate untold stories about this period of time on the part of myself and others, but since these are strictly personal experiences and have no particular bearing on the operations of the battalion, I shall leave them unaccounted. Besides, I don’t feel like getting my brains beat out at this late stage of the game. Suffice it to say that those of us who did not make the Anzio landing were kept well occupied during that period. Not only was the liberty enjoyable but it was many times educational. For instance some of us learned one sunny Sunday afternoon why the old folks sitting on the boardwalk at the beach in Salerno smiled and nodded when you strolled arm in arm down the boardwalk with some young Italian cutie. It was evidently traditional for young folks planning marriage to walk arm in arm on the boardwalk on Sunday afternoon. Upon learning this, in broken English from an Old Italian who had spent his youth in Brooklyn, the parties involved did the only gentlemanly thing open to them. They RAN!  Of course had not these young ladies with the fabulous bodies and the raven hair been endowed with a nose which put Durante to shame, things might have been different. But the thought of spending the future with someone sporting a suspension bridge for a nasal appendage was just the impetus needed to send these stalwarts on their way, quickly. We saw the young ladies some weeks later, again on Sunday, on the boardwalk, strolling arm in arm with a couple of paratroops. I often wondered if those poor guys ever wound up with a bunch of little skydivers sporting gondolas above their upper lip. Oh well, “ C’est le guerre”.

Actually, as I remember it, I (and the rest of the Battalion Headquarters Group) stayed in Italy for the remainder of the time we were in Europe (until October of 1944). Since I was in the Battalion Headquarters Group at this time and there was little call for Yeomen on the assault beaches, I and most other members of the Group were assigned to the rear echelon for the landings in Southern France also. So as I mentioned above, Salerno was my last combat operation in Europe. For this reason, the remainder of this history, specifically the landings at Anzio and Southern France, has been authored by Jack Elliott, the Battalion Executive Officer. I feel devastated that Jack did not live quite long enough to permit me to hand him a finished copy of this work on which the two of us have labored to long and so hard.

The Conclusion

Tim White
Revised  October 21, 2008